Gough Whitlam’s death reminds us of a period in Australian politics which continues to divide. From the social reforms his government introduced to the events that led to the dismissal, the Whitlam period is controversial. One theme that has run through much of the media coverage and commentary is that modern Australian politics is less passionate, increasingly driven by focus groups and polls, and intellectually shallow.
When I was born, Whitlam had been out of power for 10 years. When I was old enough to begin to understand Australian politics, Howard was in power. Politics felt petty, and it seemed like governments were trying to make themselves smaller. From the perspective of a high school student, public debate about economics and trade seemed to be missing the point. Where was the vision about social justice, about the shape of our society, about addressing historical disadvantage and deprivation?
In contrast, Whitlam seemed to represent a period where politics were about big questions and important social problems. What remained of that time were powerful speeches, large personalities and controversial decisions. It was hard to imagine any politician introducing any one reform on the scale of those that Whitlam achieved, let alone all of them.
The tributes captured the feeling that perhaps today’s politics are just a shadow of what they once were. Philip Ruddock said ‘I’m not sure there are many Gough Whitlams in the Parliament today.’ His point was – perhaps ironically – underscored by a hint of insult on a day when most were united in mourning. That is not to say that politicians didn’t insult each other in the 1970s – but we would rather remember it as a time when they didn’t.
Of course, part of the legend was the way it ended. My parents spoke of the dismissal as an outrage, as the theft of a long-awaited chance to govern and to change. There was a family friend who (gasp) thought that Fraser had done the right thing, that Whitlam was too radical, too dangerous.
In some ways the dismissal overshadowed the achievements of the Whitlam government. In Year 12 I wrote a ‘major work’ for one of my history subjects. The topic was the Whitlam dismissal, specifically “the reasons for the timing of Sir John Kerr’s dismissal of the Whitlam Government”. The underlying implication was that the decision was flawed, that it was a desparate attempt to steal power and undo the progressive reforms of the Whitlam government.
The decision itself was a complex one. When I was 18 I concluded that happened because Kerr honestly, but incorrectly, believed that the Governor-General’s reserve powers extended that far, that the Governor-General’s standing was under threat from a government that did not respect the Governor-General’s position, and that time was running out if the election was to be held before Christmas. Underlying all those beliefs is one that would not hold water in contemporary Australian political or constitutional theory: that the Governor-General’s role extended to resolving political stalemate.
The essay, of course, missed the point. A narrow, almost legalistic analysis, it failed to acknowledge the political significance of the event. To many on the Left it was proof that the Right was a sore loser, that the establishment would stand in the way of inevitable social reform. To many on the Right, it was proof that the conservatives were the only adults in the room, and the only ones who could be trusted to govern responsibly and deliver economic stability. The sweeping social reforms that Whitlam introduced are, of course, part of his legacy. The crash-through-or-crash approach and his eventual crash are also part of that legacy: they shaped the way that the Left and Right saw each other, and created a sense of a political golden age to which our contemporary leaders – by their own admission – fail to meet.
– Matthew Varley